Late night, early morning while watching a documentary on the Vietnam War, I found myself trying to imagine what it must've been like coming home as a military member from that aptly described "hell hole."
Our men were spit upon and ridiculed. Called "baby killers" and worse. In some cases even family members turned their backs on their own kin.
When I graduated high school in 1974 the war, or at least our country's role in it, was all but over. I was fortunate I did not have to go. But others did and they returned scarred for life in many cases. Then there were the tens of thousands that gave the ultimate sacrifice and all our POWs who were left until the U.S. could arrange their release. We are still repatriating the remains of many of our downed airmen to this day.
I remember vividly watching Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite reporting on the war and seeing the black and white images as the carnage unfolded. It made an indelible mark on me. A mark that several years later demanded that I serve myself, to try and do my part, although I knew deep down it would never really be enough to stand with these brave Americans who fought in a conflict that was so different than any we had ever fought before. I never made it in to combat, although I was ready if called. It seemed I was always saddled with a security clearance that would not allow me to be deployed or I was locked into what was always described as a "critical" assignment. Maybe I'm nuts, but I always felt cheated that I didn't get to go with my comrades. I always had the utmost respect for those that went, though.
After the war in Southeast Asia, our nation dog piled on these returning soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who were only doing what our nation's leaders had asked them to do. It was surreal. Never had we turned on our military as we did our Vietnam vets.
It left so many with even more damage than they had already endured - the PTSD, the agent orange induced cancer, the panic attacks and much more. My neighbor across the hall at Scott AFB in Illinois, once told me his wife had to literally wake him with a 10 foot pole. He had been a forward air controller "over there" and usually slept out beyond the lines, close to the enemy so he could direct aircraft on to their location. He was so attuned to being aware of being awakened by "Charlie" that he was apt to have attacked and killed his wife before he knew what was actually happening. And this was in 1984, quite a few years since his last tour "in country."
Another NCO I worked with at Lajes Field in the Portuguese Azorean Islands had been a gunner on the AC-130 gunships. If you're not familiar with this aircraft, it is said to literally "rain death from above." Even today, along with the A-10 "Warthog," it remains one of the most fear-inducing air platforms in our inventory. My friend had started to keep a photo album early in his several tours of duty of the carnage they would wreak on the enemy. It was not something to break out in front of the wife and kids. It actually turned my stomach when he showed it to me. I've kept in touch with Ed since our retirements and he recently told me he still had terrorizing dreams about those pictures.
Instead of honoring these Americans, we treated them so badly and then proceeded to deny them the medical, emotional and logistics support they so drastically needed. The majority of homeless vets today are still Vietnam era veterans.
Thankfully, we are attempting to do better, although I'm not sure we can ever do enough for these heroes.
As I wind this to an end, let me add my own sentiments and a thank you that is much too late...
My brothers and sisters in arms, those of us who were never there will ever come close to understanding your pain, but those of us who followed you in service offer a salute and a meaningful "job well done." You completed your mission. You did not receive the honors due you, our nation embarrassed itself in its treatment of you. You served our nation and were only doing what it asked of you. You did it to the very best of your collective abilities and served with honor and passion and distinction. May our country never, ever treat its military like you were treated. Please accept this American's love, admiration, prayers and thanks for your service. Slow hand salute rendered
(Dennis Norwood is retired as an NCO from the U.S. Air Force, a 20-year veteran. His assignments included stops at Keesler AFB, MS; Scott AFB, IL, Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal, AFCENT Det 7, NATO, Oldenburg Kaserne, Germany; and, Bad Aibling Station, Germany. He has written professionally since 1974, first working for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a young sportswriter, The Chattanoogan.com, and The Catoosa County News. He covered the Tonya Craft Trial, the Howard Hawk Willis death penalty trial and the unveiling of the Chattanooga-built VW Passat at the Detroit International Auto Show. His beats have included high school athletics, the Chattanooga Lookouts, UT-Chattanooga basketball and football, local government, the courts, politics and many other breaking news events in the local area. Dennis can be followed on Twitter at DennisENorwood and reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org)